For any social democrats interested in our ideology's intellectual history, Sheri Berman's article in the current edition of Dissent ("Unheralded Battle: Capitalism, the Left, Social Democracy, and Democratic Socialism") is worth reading.
When she is discussing the post-WWII social-democratic consensus that settled on Western Europe, including Britain, Professor Berman is giving Dissent's readers a helpful description. But her prescription (economic growth) is less helpful. The world has turned many times, and its climate has changed, since the days when economic growth was an essential part of the answer to the question that social democrats posed, i.e. how do we create a more just, equal, and democratic society?.
Personally, I enjoyed the quick trip down memory lane. Since my teens, social democracy has been the place I call home, politically speaking, and I became quite nostalgic seeing the name Tony Crosland (pictured), one of the heroes of my adolescence.
I wasn't even born when Crosland wrote The Future of Socialism and by the time I started paying attention to these things he was already dead, but he was a hero to the politicians I admired at the time, so I inherited him. When I was 14, and should have been engaged in the pursuit of manliness -- by idolizing Gareth Edwards, Phil Bennet, and other giants of Welsh rugby, for example -- I was, instead, obsessing on the split in the Labour Party. Not all Croslandites were quitting the Labour Party, but it seemed that everyone quitting the Labour Party was a Croslandite.
When the pro-Europe, pro-NATO social democrats broke away from Labour to form the SDP, I followed their every move in The Guardian. The next year Labour and the SDP had to share my attentions with the war in the Falklands, which I considered just as gripping as the civil war going on in the Labour Party, possibly more so because it involved aircraft carriers. Somewhere along the way, probably in a book by one of the SDP's co-founders, David Owen, I learned about Crosland's The Future of Socialism, ordered myself a copy, and read it several times. Pathetic creature that I was, I rather adopted Tony Crosland as my political imaginary friend. Even Adrian Mole (the voice of my generation) would have been embarrassed.
But enough Adrian Mole-esque soul-baring and back to Sheri Berman's article. Surveying the 1960s and 70s, Professor Berman describes the split between the European-style social democrats and those who still yearned for the collapse of capitalism, and she takes a swing at Michael Harrington in the process. But then, at the end of the article, addressing today's U.S. left, she turns all prescriptive on us. Her recommendation? "[T]ry to do what the Scandinavians have done: develop a program that promotes growth and social solidarity together, rather than forcing a choice between them."
A false choice it may be, but it is equally false to suppose that we can still walk into the market place of ideas, reach up, pick off the shelf a can of Scandinavian-style social democracy, and take it home to consume. A glance at the sell-by date would reveal that it was best before the period of consequences. And the period of consequences -- to quote Al Gore quoting Winston Churchill -- is what we are in. So to my eyes there is something missing from the growth-versus-solidarity frame, namely sustainability.
Growth and sustainability are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but in 2009 it is hard to justify a public conversation about the former that is not also a conversation about the latter. When Crosland wrote The Future of Socialism we hadn't heard of global warming, and in those days the vision of "grow the pie to share it" did not look like quite so myopic. But now we realize that it is myopic. We are in a consumption-created crisis and we have to reject the assumption that more consumption will get us out.
As I said, Berman's article made me nostalgic. Right now I am inclined to climb up into the loft, open some boxes, and track down my copy of The Future of Socialism. I might even read it for the umpteenth time, unless I stumble across The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole first and get side-tracked. What heightened my sense of nostalgia was the sense that Berman's article could just as easily have been published thirty years earlier, in 1979, when all we had to worry about was inflation, unemployment, and nuclear war. It has the aroma of a pre-consequences world of comparative bliss, when to be young was very heaven. The answer (expand the pie) was simpler because the question (one slice or two?) was easier.
But the new question for social democrats to ask and answer is a harder one: How do we create a more just, equal, democratic and sustainable society? To put the same question another way, in 2009 what does it mean to be a green social democrat? I welcome your comments.